Keynote Speaker:

"The Politics of Performance: Gambian-American College Writers Flip the Script on Aid to Africa"

How do rhetors call together a public to address issues of shared concern when the prevailing norms for public deliberation thwart rhetorical engagement by undercutting the agency and expertise of those most affected by the practices under question? To address this question, the proposed paper analyzes how a group of Gambian-America college writers created an alternative deliberative discourse to challenge the patronizing norms for stranger-relationality (Warner 2002) operating in prevailing public “aid-to-Africa” discourses (e.g. Kristof and WuDunn 2009). The study examines how these young rhetors evoke performative genres and move among distinct discourses so that members of their local public (the African nationals, African American professionals, white educators, fellow students, Muslim elders, conservative Christian community leaders drawn together in shared concern) might themselves embody more productive self-other relationships as they consider together the issue that draws them together publicly: under-acknowledged cultural gender norms, specifically the often hidden and insidious ways they limit young African women’s ability to thrive, whether in the U.S. or in Gambia.
The paper will first analyze the problem space in which the rhetors in this study work: the crisis of public imagination that limits how Americans tend to relate to Africans “in need"--limits not so different from the logics of cultural mission, technological expertise, or personal compassion that often inform university outreach initiatives here in the U.S. (Flower). In both cases, patronizing “doer/done-to” relations distort the challenges that contemporary rhetors face in channeling what Cornel West (2008) calls moral outrage to alleviate suffering and to construct better practices through which everyday people participate in institutions that fundamentally regulate their lives.
Against this backdrop, the study focuses on a group of Gambian-American college student writers who have come together for the past three years to host annual public events advocating girls’ secondary and tertiary education in Gambia and access to college education here in the U.S.  The students in the study are enrolled in various colleges and universities up and down the New England seaboard and positioned in a whole host of different ways to lives back home in Gambia. Thus, the entirely student-run annual event is an impressive organizational feat in its own right. Even more remarkable are the complex and dynamic ways these rhetors evoke and enact pageantry, prayer, theatrics, traditional tribal dance, hip-hop, call-and-response and move among Wolof, Arabic, French and English to expose, neutralize, and interrogate both Islamic and Western cultural norms and to embody some of the hidden and under-acknowledged ways that these norms limit options for girls and women. The intensely hybrid discourse that results is distinctly multivocal and performative, one that reconfigures stranger-relationality even as it transforms women’s daily experiences into grist for inquiry and action.

About the Speaker

Elenore Long (Associate Professor of English, Arizona State University) loves the terrain where theory and action meet. That's why she enjoys working in the area of community literacy. Sure, theories provide different lenses for interpreting the decision points, questions—even hunches—that guide the rhetorical work we do in arenas that matter most to us. Yet, scholarship in human activity is just beginning to understand how complex this kind of intellectual work really is. It is not simply applying what you know, but rather actively negotiating a course of action in the face of competing—often conflicting—theories, goals, institutional expectations, traditions, values, and habits of mind. Yet this is the space where knowledge matters, where each of us has the chance to make where we work and live a bit more inclusive, responsive, experimental, and lively.

Long's approach to community literacy is inherently interdisciplinary—bringing together the most abstract theories of political philosophy and the most grounded studies of situated literacies. Her scholarship draws on a wide array of rhetorical methods to test the limits and potential of day-to-day democracy. The individual articles she has written, for instance, contribute to broader conversations in service learning, out-of-school literacies, and sustainability. This 2008-09 academic year, she is teaching a new course on knowledge activism that features the wide range of rhetorical tools that activist rhetoricians use to contribute to public life.

After completing a postdoctoral fellowship through Pittsburgh's Community Literacy Center and Carnegie Mellon University, Long continued for several years to direct community-literacy initiatives with Wayne Peck and Joyce Baskins. With Linda Flower and Lorraine Higgins, she published Learning to Rival: A Literate Practice for Intercultural Inquiry. The recently published the leading article—a fifteen-year retrospective—for the inaugural issue of Community Literacy Journal. Her new book, Community Literacy and the Rhetoric of Local Publics offers a comparative analysis of community-literacy studies that traces common values in diverse accounts of “ordinary people going public.” [from faculty profile]